THURSDAY marked the 350th anniversary of the excommunication of the philosopher Baruch Spinoza from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam in which he had been raised.
Given the events of the last week, particularly those emanating from the Middle East, the Spinoza anniversary didn’t get a lot of attention. But it’s one worth remembering – in large measure because Spinoza’s life and thought have the power to illuminate the kind of events that at the moment seem so intractable and overwhelming.
The exact reasons for the excommunication of the 23-year-old Spinoza remain murky, but the reasons he came to be vilified throughout all of Europe are not. Spinoza argued that no group or religion could rightly claim infallible knowledge of the Creator’s partiality to its beliefs and ways. After the excommunication, he spent the rest of his life – he died in 1677 at the age of 44 – studying the varieties of religious intolerance. The conclusions he drew are still of dismaying relevance.
The Jews who banished Spinoza had themselves been victims of intolerance, refugees from the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. The Jews on the Iberian Peninsula had been forced to convert to Christianity at the end of the 15th century. In the intervening century, they had been kept under the vigilant gaze of the Inquisitors, who suspected the “New Christians,” as they were called even after generations of Christian practice, of carrying the rejection of Christ in their very blood. It can be argued that the Iberian Inquisition was Europe’s first experiment in racialist ideology.
Spinoza’s reaction to the religious intolerance he saw around him was to try to think his way out of all sectarian thinking. He understood the powerful tendency in each of us toward developing a view of the truth that favors the circumstances into which we happened to have been born. Self-aggrandizement can be the invisible scaffolding of religion, politics or ideology.
Against this tendency we have no defense but the relentless application of reason. Reason must stand guard against the self-serving false entailments that creep into our thinking, inducing us to believe that we are more cosmically important than we truly are, that we have had bestowed upon us – whether Jew or Christian or Muslim – a privileged position in the narrative of the world’s unfolding.
Spinoza’s system is a long deductive argument for a conclusion as radical in our day as it was in his, namely that to the extent that we are rational, we each partake in exactly the same identity.
Spinoza’s faith in reason as our only hope and redemption is the core of his system, and its consequences reach out in many directions, including the political. Each of us has been endowed with reason, and it is our right, as well as our responsibility, to exercise it. Ceding this faculty to others, to the authorities of either the church or the state, is neither a rational nor an ethical option.
Which is why, for Spinoza, democracy was the most superior form of government – only democracy can preserve and augment the rights of individuals. The state, in helping each person to preserve his life and well-being, can legitimately demand sacrifices from us, but it can never relieve us of our responsibility to strive to justify our beliefs in the light of evidence.
It is for this reason that he argued that a government that impedes the development of the sciences subverts the very grounds for state legitimacy, which is to provide us physical safety so that we can realize our full potential. And this, too, is why he argued so adamantly against the influence of clerics in government. Statecraft infused with religion not only dissolves the justification for the state but is intrinsically unstable, since it must insist on its version of the truth against all others.
Spinoza’s attempt to deduce everything from first principles – that is, without reliance on empirical observation – can strike us today as quixotically impractical, and yet his project of radical rationality had concrete consequences. His writings, banned and condemned by greater Christian Europe, but continuously read and discussed, played a role in the audacious experiment in rational government that gave birth to this country.
The Declaration of Independence, that extraordinary document first drafted by Thomas Jefferson, softly echoes Spinoza. John Locke, Spinoza’s contemporary – both were born in 1632 – is a more obvious influence on Jefferson than Spinoza was. But Locke had himself been influenced by Spinoza’s ideas on tolerance, freedom and democracy. In fact, Locke spent five formative years in Amsterdam, in exile because of the political troubles of his patron, the Earl of Shaftesbury.
Though Spinoza was already dead, Locke met in Amsterdam men who almost certainly spoke of Spinoza. Locke’s library not only included all of Spinoza’s important works, but also works in which Spinoza had been discussed and condemned.
It’s worth noting that Locke emerged from his years in Amsterdam a far more egalitarian thinker, having decisively moved in the direction of Spinoza. He now accepted, as he had not before, the fundamental egalitarian claim that the legitimacy of the state’s power derives from the consent of the governed, a phrase that would prominently find its way into the Declaration.
Locke’s claims on behalf of reason did not go as far as Spinoza’s. He was firm in defending Christianity’s revelation as the one true religion against Spinoza’s universalism. In some of the fundamental ways in which Spinoza and Locke differed, Jefferson’s view was more allied with Spinoza. (Spinoza’s collected works were also in Jefferson’s library, so Spinoza’s impact may not just have been by way of Locke.)
If we can hear Locke’s influence in the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” (a variation on Adam Smith’s Locke-inspired “life, liberty and pursuit of property”?), we can also catch the sound of Spinoza addressing us in Jefferson’s appeal to the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.”? This is the language of Spinoza’s universalist religion, which makes no reference to revelation, but rather to ethical truths that can be discovered through human reason.
Spinoza had argued that our capacity for reason is what makes each of us a thing of inestimable worth, demonstrably deserving of dignity and compassion. That each individual is worthy of ethical consideration is itself a discoverable law of nature, obviating the appeal to divine revelation. An idea that had caused outrage when Spinoza first proposed it in the 17th century, adding fire to the denunciation of him as a godless immoralist, had found its way into the minds of men who set out to create a government the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth.
Spinoza’s dream of making us susceptible to the voice of reason might seem hopelessly quixotic at this moment, with religion-infested politics on the march. But imagine how much more impossible a dream it would have seemed on that day 350 years ago. And imagine, too, how much even sorrier our sorry world would have been without it.